For Hidden Figures – about a team of African American women who “compute” the math data for NASA’s fi rst space missions – costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, had the opportunity to design for characters based upon three extraordinary women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
“These were very distinctive characters in real life and on the page,” commented Ehrlich Kalfus. “Katherine’s character started out being maybe the most modest, or quiet, and sheer genius. She had an arc as she becomes more confident. Dorothy came to the story as a supervisor, dressed as a supervisor in a very powerful, commanding way. Mary was the youngest and maybe the most renegade. Let’s say, defiant. Sort of the future, in terms of design and style.”
Costumes act as “windows” that help the actor in their character development. Costumes also inform the audience as to who a character is from the moment that character first appears on screen.
According to Ehrlich Kalfus, when a costume feels right the actor knows it. She works with the talent during pre-production, early in the design process. For the film, she traveled to Chicago where Henson was working on the television show, Empire. The actress commented that she was excited to be shedding the hair, nails and make-up of her current character Cookie and sink into the role of Katherine.
“I brought her sketches, the ideas that I wanted to do. And I brought her most importantly sewing patterns because it turns out that Katherine in real life was not only a genius and raising two children, she made her own clothes,” shared Ehrlich Kalfus.
That true detail, informed both Henson and Ehrlich Kalfus in her designs. Other details, such as the glasses were important, especially since the character started out conservative and a bit nerdy. Supporting the character’s arc, as Katherine became more confident, the designer took her costumes into a more striking silhouette, with more powerful colors, such as the raspberry dress she is wearing when astronaut John Glenn insists that the NASA brass “get that smart girl.”
“Her strength is exemplified through her costume,” stated Ehrlich Kalfus. “Glenn’s not going into space without her numbers. It’s an extraordinary story. She was the genius who ran the numbers that the IBM couldn’t run.”
That period in the early 60’s was a very specific, conservative era in terms of dress. The women wore girdles, stockings and pointy bras. They had a work “uniform” that started with the undergarments. With a historical film, the costumes take the actors back in time, in the case of Hidden Figures, to the segregated south.
“We all tried to immerse ourselves in the era through a tremendous amount of research. We had Katherine’s real albums. We had great help from NASA. There was a tremendous amount of footage regarding the segregation and racism,” explained Ehrlich Kalfus. “Ebony was a very interesting resource. Their archival magazines were telling stories of the time and advertising of the time.”
The palette for the film was very disciplined in terms of the storytelling. The men were all in white shirts, skinny ties and grey suits. In contrast, the women had a warmer palette. They were in a totally different place at NASA, divided by race.
“Anytime there was a powerful break through, it was kind of nice to see her break through the monochromatic world of white mathematicians, when she comes in and just nails it,” said Ehrlich Kalfus. “I like when she has those powerful looks.”
Ehrlich Kalfus feels that few films come together on all fronts like Hidden Figures came together. “There’s feeling of satisfaction to not only work on a story that has not been told, but a story that’s so important. We all knew we were telling a truly amazing story.”
At age 97, Katherine is the only woman of the three still surviving. She was invited to see the film. Perhaps the best validation of the costume design was her comment, “ You know, I wore those clothes.”